Council delays decision on dismissal of top health official

HealthElectionsPoliticsCrime, Law and JusticeJustice SystemNAACPJohn R Leopold

In a move that the county attorney and elected officials conceded was highly unusual, the Anne Arundel County Council weighed a measure this week that would have spelled the ouster of the county's top health official, Dr. Angela M. Wakhweya, the first African-American to hold the position in the county Health Department's 81-year history.

Though details of the complaints against Wakhweya have not been made public, her boss, Maryland Secretary of Health and Mental Hygiene Joshua M. Sharfstein, sent County Executive John R. Leopold and each council member a letter last week asking their "concurrence … in the removal" of Wakhweya based on assessments made by the state's health and personnel departments, as well as its director of equal opportunity programs.

"Dr. Wakhweya is an experienced public health official," the letter read, "but the department has lost confidence that she can lead the Health Department effectively at this time."

The department placed Wakhweya on indefinite administrative leave Jan. 3.

Through a departmental spokesperson, Sharfstein declined further comment, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.

A spokesperson for Leopold said the county executive has agreed to support the dismissal. Had the County Council, at its meeting Monday, backed a resolution for Wakhweya's dismissal, it would have been official. Instead, six of seven members said they knew so little about the case they felt uncomfortable voting.

"The state wants us to fire somebody, but we're being given almost no information, and that really frustrates me," Councilman James Benoit, a Democrat from Crownsville, said during an exchange with County Attorney Jonathan Hodgson.

The council voted unanimously to table the matter until its next meeting Jan. 22.

The need for county approval stems from the fact that the county health officer has a foot in both state and county governments. Anyone holding the position is a county representative to a state board. Each of Maryland's 23 counties and Baltimore City has such a health officer.

The chief executive of each jurisdiction first searches for and recommends a candidate for the job. The County Council, or its equivalent, must then vote its support, and the state's health secretary finalizes the hire.

According to Maryland law, if that official is to be removed, the process takes place more or less in reverse order.

"The health officer may only be removed … by the Secretary [of Health and Mental Hygiene]," the relevant language says, "with the concurrence of the [county's] governing body." According to the Anne Arundel County charter, no action is officially an act of "the governing body" unless it is taken by the county executive, then confirmed by the County Council.

Officials said there is no known precedent for such a move to dismiss in Anne Arundel. Hodgson said he was appearing at the meeting to clarify to council members what their legal role is.

"This is a very unusual context," he said.

It was not the council's charge, he told them, to weigh the merits of any charges or complaints against Wakhweya. State law makes that the secretary's job.

Still, several members of the council expressed discomfort with the situation. Early in the discussion, Councilman Chris Trumbauer, an Annapolis Democrat, said he would push to delay any vote until the next meeting.

"This came to light just a couple of days ago. It's a very complex situation. I don't, as a legislator, feel qualified to vote on this" yet, Trumbauer said.

"Personnel matters are usually dealt with in a private setting," Benoit added.

Wakhweya's attorney, Levi S. Zaslow, said the state health department has yet to inform him of specific charges against his client, other than to mention that it related to equal-employment practices.

A department official did suggest to him it could be related to Wakhweya's recent hiring of an African-American man for an open position, he said.

According to Zaslow, 12 of the 14 people considered for the job were African-American, and Wakhweya, who took office in October 2011, selected someone Zaslow described as the "best-qualified" candidate.

A letter that Zaslow distributed to the council also alleged that Wakhweya has been subject to what he called a "culture of overt and covert racism" within the department. He said Wakhweya, a 49-year-old native of Uganda who has lived in Anne Arundel for eight years, has endured "snide remarks, innuendoes and glares" that suggest a culture of "skepticism and a lack of comfort with individuals of other races and nationalities" within the department.

The letter also mentions an occasion on which a senior department member allegedly said that when people ask how to pronounce Wakhweya's name, "I tell [them] you're from Hawaii."

Sharfstein's office declined to comment.

At this week's meeting, a number of leaders from the county's African-American community voiced support for Wakhweya, including Anne Arundel NAACP Chairwoman Jacqueline Allsup, Democratic Alderman Kenneth A. Kirby of Annapolis and Carl O. Snowden, the former director of the state attorney general's civil rights office.

Several pointed to Wakhweya's resume, which includes a degree from Makerere University Medical School in Uganda, a master's degree in economics from the London School of Economics and a prior stint as deputy director of the Infectious Disease and Environmental Health Administration in the Maryland health department.

Bishop Craig Coates of Fresh Start Church in Glen Burnie told of the time Wakhweya took an AIDs test before his congregation to encourage members to follow suit.

"We need public servants with that kind of passion," Coates said.

That kind of recommendation may or may not matter. According to Sharfstein's letter, Dr. Laura Herrera, the state's deputy secretary for public health, and Keneithia Taylor, head of the office of equal opportunity programs, joined Human Resources Deputy Director Harold Young III and Sharfstein in recommending Wakhweya's dismissal "in the best interest of a highly functional Anne Arundel Department of Health."

According to Snowden, if more community members knew about Wakhweya's situation, they'd have "flooded the chambers" Monday night.

He said he was glad the council chose to take more time.

"This process has been so unfair. She deserves a chance to face her accusers," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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